When you think about it, humans have always known more about the cosmos than about themselves. The earliest ‘wise men’ were astrologers, observing the orbits of the stars and theorizing about the composition of the universe. The oldest and most renowned scientific institutions (Copenhagen, Hamburg, even Oxford’s science department) were founded by physicists. The most generous grants were targeted towards physics research, not biological. Even today, all college freshman must take at least an introductory course in physics, but there’s no biology requirement.
Looking back at history, the results of this imbalance are almost comical and somewhat saddening. By the middle of the Renaissance, we knew that the earth orbited the sun, but still had no idea that the human heart circulates hundreds of gallons of blood a day. As of the year 1900, we knew how to harness electricity and use it to generate light, but had no idea how cells worked. The field of quantum physics was founded by brilliant university professors, most of whom had earned (Niels Bohr) or would go on (Enrico Fermi) to earn Nobel prizes; the field of genetics was founded by an eccentric Augustinian monk (Gregor Mendel) who spent his days studying pea plants. We invented the atomic bomb before we figured out that DNA contains the human genome.
Comparisons like this don’t tell us much about the path of science, but it is interesting to note that this imbalance will be inverted in the next ten years: thanks to the sequencing of the human genome, we are on track to understand – for the first time in human history – more about our own selves than the entirety of the cosmos. Biology is entering a golden age that The Economist has tentatively dubbed Biology 2.0 last year:
It seems quite likely that future historians of science will divide biology into the pre- and post-genomic eras.
That’s quite a statement, but if you believe (as I do) that the human genome contains important secrets of health and disease, then it’s actually understating the truth. Dr. Serafim Batzoglou, a CS professor at Stanford who made major contributions to the Human Genome Project, suggests that it will one day be possible to look at not only the genome of every human, but the genome of every cell on a regular basis. Such a wealth of genomic information would provide a supremely detailed view of the trajectory of a cancerous tumor, the ongoing status of congenitive heart disease, or perhaps even the development of one’s brain over time. Data at this scale is just beginning to become available, and in the next few years we’ll learn to use it to make intelligent decisions about new drugs, treatments, and even health habits.
We are on the cusp of the most important age in human history: the age in which we use the massive body of genomic information now at our disposal to improve health on an unprecedented scale, and at an unprecedented rate. Physics, move over; the second age of science has begun.